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Gulliver's Travels

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

First Edition of Gulliver's Travels
First Edition of Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels (1726, amended 1735), officially Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, is a novel by Jonathan Swift that is both a satire on human nature and a parody of the "travellers' tales" literary sub-genre. It is widely considered Swift's magnum opus and is his most celebrated work, as well as one of the indisputable classics of English literature.

The book became tremendously popular as soon as it was published (Alexander Pope stated that "it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery"), and it is likely that it has never been out of print since then. George Orwell declared it to be among the six indispensable books in world literature. It is claimed the inspiration for Gulliver came from the sleeping giant profile of the Cavehill in Belfast.

Plot summary

The book presents itself as a simple traveller's narrative with the disingenuous title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, its authorship assigned only to "Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, then a captain of several ships". Different editions contain different versions of the prefatory material which are basically the same as forewords in modern books.

The book proper then is divided into four parts, which are as follows.

Part I: A Voyage To Lilliput

The book begins with a short preamble in which Gulliver, in the style of books of the time, gives a brief outline of his life and history prior to his voyages. We learn he is middle-aged and middle-class, with a talent for medicine and languages, and that he enjoys travelling. This turns out to be fortunate. Upon careful reading, this introduction proves to be one of the most satirical points in the book: laced with innuendos and other forms of ironic humour: a trademark of Swift's writing.

On his first voyage, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and awakes to find himself a prisoner of a race of 6 inch (15cm) tall people, inhabitants of the neighbouring and rival countries of Lilliput and Blefuscu. After giving assurances of his good behaviour he is given a residence in Lilliput and becomes a favourite of the court. There follow Gulliver's observations on the Court of Lilliput, which is intended to satirise the court of then King George I. After he assists the Lilliputians to subdue their neighbours the Blefuscudans (by stealing their fleet) but refuses to reduce the country to a province of Lilliput, he is charged with treason and sentenced to be blinded. Fortunately, Gulliver escapes to Blefuscu, where he builds a raft and sails out to a ship that he spotted on the horizon which takes him back home. The feuding between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscudans is meant to represent the feuding countries of England and France, but the reason for the war is meant to satirize the feud between Catholics and Protestants.

Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

Gulliver Exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer by Richard Redgrave
Gulliver Exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer by Richard Redgrave

While exploring a new country, Gulliver is abandoned by his companions and found by a farmer who is 22 meters tall (the scale of Lilliput is approximately 12:1, of Brobdingnag 1:12) who treats him as a curiosity and exhibits him for money. He is then bought by the Queen of Brobdingnag and kept as a favourite at court. In between small adventures such as fighting giant flies and being carried to the roof by a monkey, he discusses the state of Europe with the King, who is not impressed. On a trip to the seaside, his "travelling box" is seized by a giant eagle and dropped into the sea where he is picked up by sailors and returned to England.

Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg and Japan

Gulliver's ship is attacked by pirates and he is marooned on a desolate rocky island. Fortunately he is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but utterly unable to use these for practical ends. The device described simply as The Engine is possibly the first literary description in history of something resembling a computer. Laputa's method of throwing rocks at rebellious surface cities also seems the first time that aerial bombardment was conceived as a method of warfare. Gulliver is then taken to Balnibarbi to await a Dutch trader who can take him on to Japan and thence to England. While there, he tours the country as the guest of a low-ranking courtier and sees the ruin brought about by blind pursuit of science without practical results in a satire on the Royal Society and its experiments. He also encounters the struldbrugs, unfortunates who are both immortal and very, very old. He travels to a magician's dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, the most obvious restatement of the "ancients versus moderns" theme in the book. The trip is otherwise reasonably free of incident and Gulliver returns home, being determined to stay a homebody for the rest of his days.

This part evidently inspired Isaac Asimov's story "Shah Guido G.", in which a future Earth is groaning under the tyranny of a flying city [1]. Also the space-travelling cities of James Blish's 'Cities in Flight' series can be considered among the literary descendants of Laputa. The Japanese animated film "Castle in the Sky," by Hayao Miyazaki, also features a story about a flying island named Laputa.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

Despite his intention at the end of the third part to remain at home, Gulliver returns to sea where his crew mutinies in order to become pirates. He is abandoned ashore and comes first upon a race of (apparently) hideous deformed creatures to which he conceives a violent antipathy. Shortly thereafter he meets a horse and comes to understand that the horses (in their language Houyhnhnm or "the perfection of nature") are the rulers and the deformed creatures ("Yahoos") are human beings in the basest form. Gulliver becomes a member of the horse's household, and comes to both admire and emulate the Houyhnhnms and their lifestyle, rejecting human beings as merely Yahoos endowed with some semblance of reason which they only use to exacerbate and add to the vices Nature gave them. However, an Assembly of the Houyhnhnms rules that Gulliver, a Yahoo with some semblance of reason, is a danger to their civilization and he is expelled. He is then rescued, against his will, by a Portuguese ship that returns him to his home in England. He is, however, unable to reconcile himself to living among Yahoos; he becomes a recluse, remaining in his house, largely avoiding his family, and spending several hours a day speaking with the horses in his stables. The book finishes with a peroration against Pride that is ironically boastful and seems to be intended to show that Gulliver's reason may have turned. Swift's point is that the basic difference between humans and the Yahoos is largely artifice. However, no definite answer is forthcoming from the text and critics have argued this point for years.

It is interesting that this fourth voyage seems to have been the one that has most engaged literary critics over the years. Some readers chose to see it as proof of Swift's incipient mental deterioration (he suffered from an inner-ear disorder which led contemporaries, and Swift himself, to question his sanity.) Most famously, William Thackeray described it as "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging and obscene" - although he did live in a far more prudish time (1853). Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein made his own comment by inverting the scenario in Starman Jones, where a stray spaceship lands on a planet where carnivorous horse-like creatures dominate all other fauna including human-like creatures resembling Swift's Yahoos. These "horses" are in the opinion of some, the story's clear villains, who not only butcher and eat humans (local and extraplanetary alike) but also practice euthanasia of old and weak members of their own species. Much of the plot is devoted to the Earth humans courageously fighting them.

Composition and history

It is uncertain exactly when Swift started writing Gulliver's Travels, but some sources suggest as early as 1713 when Swift, Gay, Pope, Arbuthnott and others formed the Scriblerus Club, with the aim of satirising then-popular literary genres. Swift, runs the theory, was charged with writing the memoirs of the club's imaginary author, Martinus Scriblerus. It is known from Swift's correspondence that the composition proper began in 1720 with the mirror-themed parts I and II written first, Part IV next in 1723 and Part III written in 1724, but amendments were made even while Swift was writing The Drapier's Letters. By August 1725 the book was completed, and as Gulliver's Travels was a transparently anti-Whig satire it is likely that Swift had the manuscript copied so his handwriting could not be used as evidence if a prosecution should arise (as had happened in the case of some of his Irish pamphlets). In March 1726 Swift travelled to London to have his work published; the manuscript was secretly delivered to the publisher Benjamin Motte, who used five printing houses to speed production and avoid piracy.[1] Motte, recognising a bestseller but fearing prosecution, simply cut or altered the worst offending passages (such as the descriptions of the court contests in Lilliput or the rebellion of Lindalino), added some material in defence of Queen Anne to book II, and published it anyway. The first edition was released in two volumes on October 26, 1726, priced 8s. 6d. The book was an instant sensation and sold out its first run in less than a week.

Motte published Gulliver's Travels anonymously and, as was often the way with fashionable works, a slew of follow-ups (Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput), parodies (Two Lilliputian Odes, The firs on the Famous Engine With Which Captain Gulliver extiguish'd the Palace Fire...) and "keys" (Gulliver Decypher'd and Lemuel Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Regions of the World Compendiously Methodiz'd, the second by Edmund Curll who had similarly written a "key" to Swift's Tale of a Tub in 1705) were produced over the next few years. These were mostly printed anonymously (or occasionally pseudonymously) and were quickly forgotten. Swift had nothing to do with any of these and specifically disavowed them in Faulkner's edition of 1735. However, Swift's friend Alexander Pope wrote a set of five Verses on Gulliver's Travels which Swift liked so much that he added them to the second edition of the book, though they are not nowadays generally included.

Faulkner's 1735 edition

In 1735 an Irish publisher, George Faulkner, printed a complete set of Swift's works to date, Volume III of which was Gulliver's Travels. As revealed in Faulkner's "Advertisement to the Reader", Faulkner had access to an annotated copy of Motte's work by "a friend of the author" (generally believed to be Swift's friend Charles Ford) which reproduced most of the manuscript free of Motte's amendments, the original manuscript having been destroyed. It is also believed that Swift at least reviewed proofs of Faulkner's edition before printing but this cannot be proven. Generally, this is regarded as the Editio Princeps of Gulliver's Travels with one small exception, discussed below.

This edition had an added piece by Swift, A letter from Capt. Gulliver to his Cousin Sympson which complained of Motte's alterations to the original text, saying he had so much altered it that "I do hardly know mine own work" and repudiating all of Motte's changes as well as all the keys, libels, parodies, second parts and continuations that had appeared in the intervening years. This letter now forms part of many standard texts.



The short (five paragraph) episode in Part III, telling of the rebellion of the surface city of Lindalino against the flying island of Laputa, was an obvious allegory to the affair of The Drapier's Letters of which Swift was justifiably proud. Lindalino was Dublin (Lin-da-lin = Double-lin = Dublin) and the impositions of Laputa represented the British imposition of Wood's poor-quality currency. For uncertain reasons Faulkner had omitted this passage, either because of political sensitivities raised by being an Irish publisher printing an anti-English satire or possibly because the text he worked from didn't include the passage either. It wasn't until 1899 that the passage was finally included in a new edition of the Collected Works. Modern editions thus derive from the Faulkner edition with the inclusion of this 1899 addendum.

Major themes

Gulliver's Travels has been called a lot of things from Menippean satire to a children's story, from proto-Science Fiction to a forerunner of the modern novel. Possibly one of the reasons for the book's classic status is that it can be seen as many things to many people. Broadly, the book has three themes:

  • a satirical view of the state of European government, and of petty differences between religions.
  • an inquiry into whether men are inherently corrupt or whether they become corrupted.
  • a restatement of the older "ancients v. moderns" controversy previously addressed by Swift in the Battle of the Books.

In terms of storytelling and construction the parts follow a pattern:

  • The causes of Gulliver's misadventures become more malignant as time goes on - he is first shipwrecked, then abandoned, then attacked by strangers, then attacked by his own crew.
  • Gulliver's attitude hardens as the book progresses — he is genuinely surprised by the viciousness and politicking of the Lilliputians but finds the behavior of the Yahoos in the fourth part reflective of the behavior of people
  • Each part is the reverse of the preceding part — Gulliver is big/small/sensible/ignorant, the countries are sophisticated/simple/scientific/natural, forms of Government are worse/better/worse/better than England's.
  • Gulliver's view between parts contrasts with its other coinciding part — Gulliver sees the tiny Lilliputians as being vicious and unscrupulous, and then the king of Brobdingnag sees Europe in exactly the same light. Gulliver sees the Laputians as unreasonable, and Gulliver's houyhnhm master sees humanity (well, Yahoos) equally so.
  • No form of government is ideal — the simplistic Brobdingnagians enjoy public executions and have streets infested with beggars, the honest and upright Houyhnhnms who have no word for lying are happy to suppress the true nature of Gulliver as a Yahoo and equally unconcerned about his reaction to being expelled
  • Specific individuals may be good even where the race is bad — Gulliver finds a friend in each of his travels and, despite Gulliver's rejection of and horror toward all Yahoos, is treated very well by the Portuguese captain, Don Pedro, who returns him to England at the novel's end.

Of equal interest is the character of Gulliver himself — he progresses from a cheery optimist at the start of the first part to the pompous misanthrope of the book's conclusion and we may well have to filter our understanding of the work if we are to believe the final misanthrope wrote the whole work. In this sense Gulliver's Travels is a very modern and complex novel. There are subtle shifts throughout the book, such as when Gulliver begins to see all humans, not just those in Houyhnhnm-land, as Yahoos.

Despite the depth and subtlety of the book, it is often derided as a children's story because of the popularity of the Lilliput section (frequently bowdlerised) as a book for children. It is still possible to buy books entitled Gulliver's Travels which contain only parts of the Lilliput voyage.

Cultural influences

The popularity of Gulliver is such that the term "Lilliputian" has entered the language as an adjective meaning "small and delicate". There is even a brand of cigar called Lilliput which is, obviously, small.

In like vein, the term "Yahoo" is often encountered as a synonym for ruffian or thug. "Brobdingnagian" also can be occasionally found as a synonym for 'very large' or 'gigantic'.

In the discipline of computer architecture, the terms big-endian and little-endian are used to describe two possible ways of laying out bytes in memory; see Endianness. One of the conflicts in the book is between Lilliputians who preferred cracking open their soft-boiled eggs from the little end, and Blefuscans who preferred the big end.

Allusions and references from other works

Alan Moore's two graphic novels The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen establish Gulliver as the unofficial leader of an early incarnation of the League, alongside various others including The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dr. Syn and Fanny Hill.

The film Castle in the Sky features a flying island called Laputa. Hayao Miyazaki has stated the name comes from Swift's book. Sometime during the late 1990s or early 2000s the term Laputa has become a meme referring to any inhabited (or previously inhabited) floating islands or their societies.

In the Stanley Kubrick film Doctor Strangelove, one of the B-52 bomber's target in Russia is a missile complex at 'Laputa'

In the Nintendo game by Shigesato Itoi, MOTHER 2 (EarthBound in the US), the second "Power Spot" is named Lilliput Steps. It is a series of extremely tiny footprints. Also, the first Power Spot is named Giant Step, featuring a single huge footprint; it may be a reference to Brobdingnag's giants.

In Kingdom Hearts 2 at the Timeless River, a small area is called Lilliput, which is a very miniature town.

The Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) wrote two novels in which a 20th-century Gulliver visits imaginary lands. One, Utazás Faremidóba (i.e. "Voyage to Faremido"), recounts a trip to a land with almost robot-like, metallic beings whose lives are ruled by science, not emotion, and who communicate through a language based on musical notes. The second, Capillária, is a satirical comment on male-female relationships. It involves a trip by Gulliver to a world where all the intelligent beings are female, males being reduced to nothing more than their reproductive function.

Kazohinia is written by Sándor Szathmári, another Hungarian writer. Szathmári regarded Karinthy as his “spiritual father”. Kazohinia and Voyage to Faremido show many similarities: both describe beings that are not only capable to understand the secrets of Nature, but are manifestations of Nature themselves.

The novel The Return of the Antelope (by Willis Hall and Rowan Barnes-Murphy) and its sequel The Antelope Company at Large centre around the adventures of three Liliputian sailors shipwrecked in England. Return of the Antelope was subsequently made into a TV series by Granada Television.

The novel Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White features descendants of Liliputians that were captured and brought to England.

The comic book series Fables has a city called "Smalltown" which was founded by exiled Lilliputian soldiers.


"A Voyage to Lilliput" was adapted for inclusion in Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Gulliver's Travels has been adapted several times for film and television.

  • Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902): A French short silent adaptation directed by Georges Méliès.
  • Novyj Gulliver (1935): Russian film by Aleksandr Ptushko about a Soviet schoolboy who dreams about ending up in Lilliput. Notable for its intricate puppetry and a decidedly strange twisting of Swift's tale in favor of Communist ideas.
  • Gulliver's Travels (1939): animated feature produced by Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures as a response to the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, directed by Dave Fleischer. The film is generally considered one of the best from The Golden Age of Hollywood animation, although it varies widely from the original novel. Fleischer used the rotoscope to animate the character of Gulliver, tracing from footage of a live actor. The film was a moderate success, and its Lilliputian characters appeared in their own cartoon short subjects. With the expiration of its copyright, this film has entered the public domain, and can be downloaded at no charge from the Prelinger Archive. [2]
  • The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960): The first live action adaptation of Gulliver's Travels, but also incorporating the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. It was directed by Jack Sher and starred Kerwin Mathews.
  • The Adventures of Gulliver (1968): This animated series was directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Young Gary Gulliver, voiced by Jerry Dexter, searches for his missing father in the land of Lilliput.
  • Gulliver's Travels (1977): Live action/animated musical film directed by Peter R. Hunt and starring Richard Harris featuring the Lilliput voyage only.
  • Gulliver's Travels (1979) : Animated cartoon made in Australia that was seen on Famous Classic Tales on CBS. It starred Ross Martin as Lemuel Gulliver and features two voyages.
  • Gulliver's Travels (1992): Animated television series starring the voice of Terrence Scammell.
  • Gulliver's Travels (1996): Live-action television mini-series starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. In this version Dr. Gulliver has returned to his family from a long absence. The action shifts back and forth between flashbacks of his travels and the present where he is telling the story of his travel and has been committed to an asylum. It is notable for being one of the very few adaptations to feature all four voyages, and is considered the closest adaptation to the book, despite taking several liberties.
  • The character of Gulliver appears in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber, played by Bernard Horsfall.
  • A parody of Gulliver occurs when Ben Stiller's character in Night at the Museum is tied down with rope in the same fashion as Gulliver.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Gulliver's Travels

Online Text

  • Gulliver's Travels, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • Annotated version of Gulliver's Travels
  • RSS edition of the text


  • Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants at the Internet Movie Database
  • Novyj Gulliver (1935) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Gulliver's Travels (1939) at the Internet Movie Database
    • Gulliver's Travels (1939) — The full feature film available for download at the Internet Archive
  • The 3 Worlds of Gulliver at the Internet Movie Database
  • Gulliver's Travels (1977) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Gulliver's Travels (TV series) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Gulliver's Travels (1996)(TV)(Mini-series) at the Internet Movie Database

Other Information

  • Gulliver's Travels: The Antithetical Structure
  • Gulliver's Travels Deciphered, by Alastair Sweeny
  • Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels, by George Orwell
  • Armagh Public Library: Home to the original Gulliver's travels
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